Oh, God

Oh, God

Female voice sings of concerns about being with First Male Voice

I had me a daydream

I had me a nightmare

Then I saw you

I said me a church prayer

I rolled me some snake eyes

Then I got you

I left you in Memphis

You found me in Clarksdale

Oh, God

You cried when you saw me

You said you would be changed

You'd make me a home

You promised a baby

You said you would love me

Then you turned mean

You watched me so close by

I forgot what my name was

Oh, God

I heard me some voices

They said that you'd hurt me

It'd come in the night

Your words say you love me

Your eyes say you're angry

I feel lost in this place

I'm looking for freedom

I'll settle for mercy

Oh, God

Chapter 8

December 20, 2016

     For some reason, some inexplicable reason, I am back to not sleeping well. About 3:00 am or so, I wake up—bolt up, almost in horror. Immediately, I am thinking about things I have to do, things I’ve forgotten to do. It might have to do with it being the end of the semester, or something to do with the lingering turmoil at the university—the budget cuts, the reorganization, the new deans (four of them), new vice chancellors, new policies, old policies that keep getting reinterpreted, on and on. We have these things called dashboards now, a string of discrete data clusters that chairs are supposed to use to make decisions. It's the new thing in higher ed. Some universities have actual dashboards with live data. We have a sheet of paper with little red, yellow, or green spots to let you know how you're doing. I have way too many red dots. The chairs feel the data isn't good. At least, it doesn't match the data chairs keep. And it doesn't seem to give much direction. It's not like hearing a vision for the university. It seems to be saying everything is important, even things that are contradictory, that push you in different directions. No one seems to know how to implement it. Some deans are ignoring it, and some are saying you need all green dots. The chairs, all of us, seem to be walking around in circles wondering what the hell they want us to do. It’s not a good time.

     When I have been able to sleep, it has been sporadic and troubled. With odd dreams. Last night, I dreamt that I had been out of town. I was coming up to my house. It wasn’t like any house I’ve ever lived in. It didn’t even look like a house in this city, more like a house outside of Chicago, but I knew it was my house. I was driving up, and I noticed everything was a mess. In the front yard—I could see it as I approached, as I parked my car—there was trash, empty kegs, beer cans, and potato chip bags across the yard. Furniture had been pulled out of the house and ripped apart or torched. I saw one of my sons, like when he was a teenager, not like a grown man, walking around aimlessly, and I asked, “What happened here?” He shrugged his shoulders and walked away. I went in the house. Trash was everywhere. I was thinking, How could this happen? How would my sons let this happen? I’ve only been gone a few days. How could this much damage been done in a few days? I walked into the bathroom. A baby, wrapped in a blanket, was lying on the floor, crying. A young guy, maybe eighteen years old or so, was sleeping in the bathtub. 

        Somehow, I knew he was the father. I picked the baby up and tried to find my sons. They were just walking around outside like this was normal, like nothing had happened, like they were teenagers. I was outside, holding the baby, then I saw the young man, the father, start to get on a bicycle and ride away. I stood in front of him. I was still holding the baby, and I was screaming at him, “You can’t leave. You’ve got to take care of your baby.” I woke up in a cold sweat.

     This is the kind of dream I have been having. Odd—on so many levels. My sons don’t even live at home. There is no one there to wreck anything.

     I think, maybe this is what it's about, I think, maybe, I am afraid the department is going to fall apart, which is just not rational. I don’t think I’m irreplaceable. If I stopped trying to hold things together, eventually someone would step in. This is what I usually think. When I am calm. Then, I have these moments of panic. I think I—I alone—must maintain order.

     Charles says that I have the sense of responsibility of a Puritan. I can never figure out whether he means it as a compliment or an insult. I don’t doubt that there is a lot of truth in that. I know it’s not logical, but I think that the department will suffer—maybe not fall apart, but suffer—if I don’t keep things together. I am not saying that I’ve been doing a great job with keeping things running, lately, that is, though once I did. But I still think I am needed, as uneven my work has been. Here’s this guy who can’t hardly keep himself together, and he has to look out for all these students, these faculty, the department, these procedures. Maybe the dream was telling me that things are already falling apart, and I need to start dealing with problems and potential problems.

     And there’s Barnes. I had a Barnes encounter that was troubling. Maybe not troubling, annoying. Or, a worry, a potential for repercussions. In the midst of all this. A worry about Barnes. That might have something to do with my sleep issues. I did something that I wouldn’t ordinarily do, even when I am not at my best.

     The Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management—one of the new guys—called a meeting on short notice last week, a meeting with only two days advance notice, when we are in the middle of exams, trying to wrap up the semester. And it was not an invitation, not an inquiry about can you meet at this time, but a command. The dean might subtly tell me he needed to see me on short notice, but he is my direct report. . . . I know. The Enrollment Management guy is a Vice Chancellor, technically higher up the Great Chain of Being than a dean, but he’s not an academic. He shouldn’t think he can push around deans or chairs, people on the academic side. He must have worked in business at some point in his career, where it is okay to say, “I need to see you now, today.” I’m sure the other chairs were thinking the same thing I was, Who does this guy think he is that he can demand I show up on such short notice? I know he is under pressure, with enrollment down. I understand. But he’s not going to have much support if he assumes he can order people around.

     So, I go to this meeting on short notice. I had to cancel some advising sessions, which pissed off some students. When I walked in the room, I was surprised to see Barnes seated at the table. I rarely see him at meetings, especially ones that deal with some sort of enrollment or retention crisis. He just doesn’t come. He thinks he is above it. So, he sends a representative. The crisis, it turns out, is a looming drop in graduate enrollments. That had always been one of the university’s areas of stability. The VC wanted to brainstorm some potential interventions, like calling students who were enrolled but had not registered, offering additional assistantships, maybe some reductions in tuition.

     I hate meetings like this. They are reactive and seldom do any good. Some universities are able to push the needle on enrollments over the long-term, with targeted recruitment plans or by developing new programs, or, short-term, with a good football season, but most universities, like ours, fight forces that are beyond their control, like a reduction in Pell Grant money, competition from non-profits, the economy, a reduction in high school graduates, and increased state regulations. The meeting would, no doubt, end with a plan. Everyone in the room would be charged with doing something, like calling unregistered students, a handful of students would register, and the new VC would be seen as someone who knows how to act.

     Barnes was sitting across from me and down the table a bit, more toward the VC. He was, as always, wearing a suit, white shirt, and tie. I couldn’t see his shoes, but I’m sure they were Italian, shined, and the appropriate color. No academic brown shoes for this guy. I was feeling fairly together because I had put on a relatively wrinkle-free dress shirt and a clean pair of jeans that morning. My topsiders were not too scuffed up. Before I walked over to the admin building, I put on that tan sport coat I keep in my office in case I need to look more presentable for a meeting with the dean or some other administrator. I wasn’t well groomed when compared to Barnes, but, for an academic, I wasn’t scruffy enough to warrant any attention. There was this chair, Lloyd Peters, the former chair of History, who set the benchmark for scruffy on our campus. He often came to meetings, even when the provost was present, in a causal shirt, unbuttoned half way down his chest, a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket, cargo shorts, navy blue knee socks, and running shoes or sandals. No one ever told him to go home and change. So, despite the way he dressed, despite being pretty non-responsive to the dean, he just muddled along and they left him alone. Then, he disappeared one day. . . . No, I don’t think they put out a hit. Someone said, I think, that he had a heart attack. Who knows? No one felt a need to send out a search party.

     So, Barnes is sitting there, darting his eyes around the room like he is looking for Vietcong behind the potted plants. What a worm. I didn’t make eye contact. I watched out of the corner of my eye as I opened my notebook and wrote down a few meaningless phrases I would never reread. Barnes, one the other hand, was taking detailed notes, even before the meeting started. . . . That's what I was thinking. On what? He seemed clearly agitated, but the obsessive note taking was typical behavior for him. In every meeting, he has his head down, clicking away at his keyboard, recording every word. I can’t imagine that he had time to consult any of these notes.

     Early in the meeting, the VC remarked that graduate enrollments were down, how graduate enrollments affect state funding, how the president was concerned, how we needed to turn things around. Then, he started to read off the numbers for each program. My department typically has about thirty to forty MA students. It’s a small program, but fairly stable. We were at thirty-six with about five weeks before the spring semester starts. The MA and PhD in Political Science were down twenty-six students. As I looked down the table at the VC, if I softened my focus, it was easy to see Barnes without appearing to look at him. His facial muscles tightened. His breathing changed slightly. He raised his hand to his chin and started rubbing his forefinger back and forth in a random pattern. I was enjoying watching him squirm.

     After the meeting was over, Barnes grabbed my arm and said, “I need to talk to you.” It was a statement. He didn’t ask. The dean, hell, the provost, the president, none of them, tell me they need to speak to me, not in that kind of tone, unless I’ve made a huge mistake, unless there is a potential disaster, like a lawsuit. Even then, they ask nice. They don’t address me like this. Or anyone else. Chairs or faculty or students. I thought about shoving him. I often have these fantasies about sucker punching the bastard. . . . I know. Don’t worry. I always check myself. It’s not so much concern for what it would do to my standing, my reputation, if I went all high school and started punching someone, Barnes in particular. I worry about how it would harm my sons, harm the department—the people in my department.

     I didn’t respond. I pulled my arm from his grip and squared off to face him. The room was pretty much empty by this time.

     “In private,” he said.

     We walked out into the hallway, to a small waiting area about twenty feet from the conference room, out of earshot of the people still moving toward the elevator. I again squared off and faced him. Closer than I usually stand to someone. Looked down at him. I always forget how short he is until I am standing next to him.

     “You need to reel in your guy.” He actually said “your guy,” like we were in the military and I was being given a command about one of my subordinates.

     “My guy? Which guy would that be?”

     “Elliot. You need to reel him in.” He pointed his index finger at me—up at me—almost stuck it into my chest. If he had actually touched me, I think I would have hit him.

     “Well, Elliot is my colleague. My friend. I wouldn’t exactly call him ‘my guy.’ In fact, I can’t imagine in what sense that phrase might be appropriate. And I can’t imagine in what sense I should ‘reel him in,’ or why it is part of my job to ‘reel him in’ from something to please you, or why you think you have any right to tell me to do anything, because I am pretty sure I don’t work for you.”

     This is about as nasty as we can get in academic life. There was an implied ‘you little mother fucking turd of an excuse for a normal human being’ at the end, but Barnes is essentially incapable of reading any nuance from a phrase, voice inflection, or gesture.

     It would be logical to think that my voice was rising as I worked my way through this little monologue, but it wasn’t. My pent up anger does get away from me in certain situations. You know this. But not at work. There, in my department, people view me as calm, imperturbable, measured, except for an occasional outburst that passes quickly. No, I spoke slowly and progressively dropped the volume as I moved through the reply, this to make sure that I would not show anger, at least not in a way that one of the people waiting for the elevator might detect. The only signs of tension in the encounter came from Barnes. Well, maybe my stance might have suggested some tension, but I am pretty sure I appeared calm next to Barnes. His face was red, bright red, his voice a little louder than it should have been, and he was pointing that index finger at my chest. People just don’t point fingers like this in academic life. People don’t show their anger. Unless they are a couple of levels above you and you have really screwed up. Even then, it is behind closed doors.

     At the end of my reply, I gently touched his arm and pushed his finger away, bending it back, just enough to cause a little pain, a gesture that served as final punctuation. Barnes jerked his hand, with its extended finger, from mine. He looked me in the eye, breathing hard. The whole situation was ridiculous, like something that would happen between two twenty-somethings in a bar. Jeez. How silly. Embarrassing. I should have just walked away when he said he needed to talk to me. It would have been over. He would have been pissed, but it wouldn't have escalated.

     I didn’t realize it, but I must have had a smirk on my face.

     “Is something funny?” Barnes’ voice was rising again.

     “I was just thinking about something.”

     I was hoping he would ask me what, but he didn’t. He just kept staring. I decided to share, anyway. I told the story slowly, drew it out, with broad hand gestures. Comically exaggerated hand gestures. I had decided I wanted the people by the elevator to notice. I’ll leave it to you to imagine the hand gestures. I wouldn't want to draw too much attention here, in the coffee shop. I might have done some facial gestures, too.

     “I once saw an odd story on some cable show about a woman whose job it was to collect semen from swine, which she then used, well, you know, to impregnate the females. The show, from a distance, included a prolonged shot of a huge swine mounted on a wooden form, carpet on the top of it, open below, with enough room for the woman to slip in her hand, service the beast to the point of ejaculating into a glass container, with, hard to believe—but absolutely true, I promise you—some cutaway close-ups of the swine’s face as he was being pleasured by this young woman, who acted as bored as if she had some factory job. Those close-ups of the swine’s rapid breathing, that is the image that flashed in my mind as I was watching you, with your red face and flared nostrils, breathing hard. I’m sure I must have had a slight smile on my face as you were talking to me. I apologize for that. After all, I was thinking about the face of a swine nearing orgasm. It’s just that image of the hog flashed into my mind. I should have been listening closer to what you were saying. Did you want to repeat that stuff about Charles?”

     He seemed frozen in place for a little while, then he turned. He didn’t go toward the elevator. He walked to the stairwell. Before he opened the door and started to descend seven flights of stairs to avoid me, avoid the others, he glanced over his should for one last look, like a little kid fleeing a bully. His face was still flushed, about as red as I’ve ever seen a human face. I have to admit, I was kind of proud of myself for coming with that on the spot. Of course, at that moment, that exact point in time, I turned an adversary into an enemy. It felt good, but I know I will pay for it down the line. It doesn't make sense to burn bridges for no reason other than pure amusement.

     I walked over to the elevator, where a few people were still waiting. Bill Toney, Chair of the Department of Chemistry, looked at me with a smirk, probably mirroring mine, “Barnes seems a little hot under the collar.”

     “He feels like the VC singled out his programs. He’ll be okay,” I replied. 

     “I hope so,” Bill said, with plenty of irony. “He’s such a nice guy. Such an asset to the university.” I know Bill doesn’t like Barnes either, not that we’ve had conversations about it. Most people don’t like Barnes. He acts like he’s still in the military or working in government. He has never really adapted to being in a university.

     “Yea,” I replied. “I wouldn’t want him to be unhappy.”

I just love irony.

     Of course, I went back to the department and looked for Charles. He wasn’t in his office. I couldn’t reach him at his house or on his cell. It was later that night before we talked. He was at home. Agitated as usually. But no more than usual. I asked him what was going on between him and Barnes. He claimed nothing. I told him what happened, not the pig part, just the part about me needing to “reel in my guy.” He laughed. Then, he admitted to talking to some of the grad students in Poly Sci, some other people also. I asked him, “What about?” I asked him several times. He kept saying that he wanted to make sure they were okay. I asked him who the other people were. All he would say is that they were old friends. I told him, again, as I had already, several times, that, if he had any concerns, to report it, take it to the Affirmative Action Officer, and then walk away from it. I told him, again, to be careful.

     It almost seems like I have ceased being human. I have become so predictable, except for some rare occasions, like my encounter with Barnes that day. I feel like I am so lost in this role of being a chair that I keep saying the same thing, even when I know that people don’t want to hear it, when I know they aren’t listening, when I know they have already started to act, in opposition to everything I am telling them. It’s like I am hovering above my body, watching myself, asking, Who is this person?

     That little encounter with Barnes, for that two or three minutes, it felt pretty good. I would be okay being that guy, telling that story, pissing off someone who needed to be handled in that way. Then, I just reverted back, in a matter of a few minutes.